Fighting Humanity's 'Great Derangement': How Art Can Help Us Solve Climate Change

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In the many discussions and debates going on around the world about how we can fix climate change and leave a better world for our children, the subject often turns to education. The conventional wisdom that usually holds is that children (and adults too!) need to learn more science and economics, as these are the two academic disciplines that have played the largest role in increased carbon emissions, and play the largest role in proposing solutions. Little, if any, discussion revolves around the role of the arts and humanities in helping to solve the problem, and I've been thinking A LOT about this lately. This short essay will explain why I think arts education is critically important, and how art like literary science fiction can help us solve the climate change problem.

In my opinion, one of the biggest roadblocks to real action on climate change is what Indian author Amitav Ghosh (2017) called humanity's "great derangement": our inability perceive a very real catastrophe that has not yet reared its ugly head, but certainly awaits us. Climate change catastrophe, when it arrives, which without intervention it almost certainly will, is different to any other environmental crisis of our time, precisely because we cannot yet perceive it. When we pour chemicals into a river, we automatically see dead fish. Walk into a polluted megacity, you can taste exhaust fumes in the air. But - how do we perceive the consequences of something as abstract as releasing an invisible gas into the planet's atmosphere over decades, even centuries?

The way I see it, this is primarily a problem of imagination. Human beings are fortunate enough to possess what is thought to be the exclusive ability in nature to simulate future states in their minds. Simulating future states allows people to perceive otherwise imperceptible states, for example, impending catastrophe due to climate change. But - how can our imagination be harnessed to help us perceive this?

In recent years, authors have been writing "climate fiction", more popularly known as "CliFi". CliFi is a fairly broad subgenre of Science Fiction that imagines both Utopian (desirable) or Dystopian (undesirable) future states that could eventuate due to climate change. Hoping to counter our "great derangement", CliFi works allow readers to more palpably perceive what climate catastrophe might look like, and stimulate thought about how we can avoid or even adapt to that catastrophe.

Unchecked climate change is not going to be pretty. In fact, it's probably going to be far worse than most of us can even begin to imagine. Authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Margaret Atwood, and Kim Stanley Robinson, use CliFi to simulate the worst case scenario of climate collapse, and bring our present and unchecked trajectory into the realm of perception. In Bacigalupi's The Water Knife, he paints a bleak picture of a North America devoid of water where nation states have ceased to exist, replaced by bloodthirsty water cartels. Robinson's most recent work, New York 2140 imagines a submerged New York City, profoundly impacting human society.

But CliFi is not all about imagining the worst case scenario: it's also about imagining better futures, and ways out of our problem. It's clear to pretty much everyone that in order to avoid the worst effects of Anthropogenic Global Warming, humans are going to have to engage in fairly significant social, political, and economic transformation. Much of this transformation will include things like decarbonising the economy, transitioning to relatively untested new technologies, forming new social habits, and, to put simply, living our lives very differently. In Robinson's Pacific Edge, for example, he imagines a world where these transformations have been embraced, and taken to their Utopian, or desirable conclusions through successful transition to renewables, and a rejection of the neoliberal, extraction-focused economic paradigm.

CliFi is getting bigger and bigger, and according to Dan Bloom, the journalist who coined the term "CliFi", the 2020s will be the "decade of CliFi". My goal is for all children (and adults!) to read CliFi works, and for the genre to be required reading on EVERY school curriculum from kindergarten to university. I have recently written my Master's dissertation on the topic, delivered a companion TEDx Talk, and am currently launching www.teachclifi.com, a not-for-profit teaching resource bank that helps teachers bring climate fiction into the classroom. I will post links to each in the comments, as well as a list of CliFi books I recommend. Follow the hastags #CliFi and #TeachCliFi on Twitter. I am also very much looking forward to being a regular contributor on Green Executive.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope you are inspired to pick up a CliFi book!


Ben Parson is a futurist, educator, public speaker, EdTech workshop leader, and science fiction enthusiast. He has held teaching and educational leadership positions in countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and now Australia. He is a digital learning transformation leader who is passionate about educational technology, and has been engaged by Microsoft and Google education partners to speak and deliver workshops at EdTech summits in South Africa, Singapore, and the Philippines.​ He is presently very concerned about climate change and the environment, and interested in the role science fiction can play in helping readers imagine, understand and make sense of it all. He is the founder of www.teachclifi.com, an educational resource aimed at bringing climate fiction, or CliFi, into classrooms around the world.


Any opinions or views expressed in this blog post are those of the individual author, unless explicitly stated to be those of GreenExecutive.

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